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Duck soup

Q From George Mannes; Jude Symanski and Loren also asked about the origin of the expression.: I’m curious to know the origin of the expression duck soup, which a college professor of mine used several times as a synonym for ‘an extremely easy task’ (that is, I think, until he realized that the class was snickering at the oddity of the expression). I’m aware of the Marx Brothers’ film title, but I’ve never heard anyone other than the professor use it in conversation before or since.

A It’s getting more than a little old-fashioned, though it is still common enough to be included in American dictionaries. The first recorded use, according to Prof Jonathan Lighter in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was in a Tad Dorgan cartoon in 1902, in reference to a man juggling a set of miscellaneous items. It means some action that was easy or presented no challenge, a cinch to complete, like rolling off a log.

It’s a weird phrase. Nobody has the slightest idea where it came from or what it refers to. The cartoon is no help, as it shows a man in a Police Court, juggling a bottle, pitcher, plate and salt shaker, with the caption “Duck Soup”. Nobody has managed to make much sense of it. It’s not even certain that TAD Dorgan actually meant by the phrase that it was something easy — it might just as well refer to something that looks easy, but is actually difficult.

Could the image be of a sitting duck, one that was on the water and easy for a hunter to shoot? Could it be that duck soup was especially easy to prepare? (I’m told that isn’t so.) Might it even refer to a pond with ducks floating on it, which figuratively was already duck soup? All these have been tentatively put forward by various writers who were feverishly exercising their imaginations in the absence of solid fact.

If anybody ever finds out, do let me know.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Sep. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 September 2002.